Ten ways you know you’re in Spain


Hey, folks! It’s been a little while but I thought this edition should be a fun way of talking about some of the cultural things that I love and hate about Spain (but mostly love). This is the third time that I’ve lived here and I learn more and more each time I come. Here are some of my favorite things to comment, complain, admire and smirk about:

1. Ham. Everywhere. Ham.

The food that is nearest and dearest to most Spaniards is the ham. They put it in everything and have giant ham legs hanging in stores and rest stops. In Salamanca you can purchase premium ham that costs more than $100.00 a kilo…  Take a look at this blog post called “Spanish ham, sweet Spanish ham” for fun details.

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Yes, we love ham so much that our small children bathe in it! HAM!!!

Yes, we love ham so much that our small children bathe in it! HAM!!!

2. You go out to a restaurant for an “early” dinner at 9:00 p.m.

This is hard for Americans to get used to. The normal time to eat lunch is between 2 and 4 p.m. Spanish don’t eat dinner until around 9:00 if they’re at home. If you’re going out to eat at a restaurant, don’t expect to go before 9:30 or 10:00 and it’s not super strange to not even start by 11:00. Most restaurants don’t even open for dinner until after 8:00 p.m. If you go at that time, the kitchen probably won’t be ready and you’ll literally be the only ones in the place! Here are some more Spanish eating customs.

In Spain, getting back home before 3:00 am.m isn't going out (to party). It's going to dinner.

In Spain, getting back home before 3:00 am.m isn’t going out. It’s going to dinner.

3. The entire city shuts down from 2:30-4:30 every day.

SIESTA required after FIESTA! In Spain, the old custom of taking a nap after the mid-day meal isn’t always practiced anymore (but it’s there if you need it!) but the shops still close down for two hours a day for lunch. I love this! It’s the polar opposite of the American way: Go take your 30 minute lunch break either at your desk while still working, or in the stinky employee room that has corporate propaganda and safety notices on the wall. In Spain, it can be hard at first to want to “get something done” (copies, bank, food shopping etc.) at this time but in the end I’m really thankful that there is a time of the day that I’m forced to slow down, eat, rest, and just “be.”  The work days are longer because of this break but I think that in the end, people have more energy after work because it’s been broken up and they have a minute (more like 120) to rest.

Take a break. It won't kill you. In fact, it will probably help you live longer!

Take a break. It won’t kill you. In fact, it will probably help you live longer!

4. wine and beer is cheaper than water

Firstly, I’d like to say that I really don’t understand how Spanish can function with so little water consumption! Seriously, there are no drinking fountains anywhere, you don’t sit down and get a free water with any meal or drink purchase and the Nalgene bottle is a foreign concept. Really, wine and beer are cheaper than water at restaurants and cafes. How are these people not peeing neon yellow?! Drink water people, drink!

Here, kid. We can't afford water. Have a beer.

Here, kid. We can’t afford water. Have a beer.

5. If you put your hand up to stop an elevator door your hand gets smashed.

The first time I tried to stop an elevator door to let a friend jump in, I put my hand out to stop it… It didn’t work out very well. My friend laughed at me and said:

“Amanda, elevators are universal. It’s not a third world country, use the ‘open door’ button.”

Me: “Um, no. They are not universal. Where I come from (the land of law suits and sue-happy citizens), the doors have automatic sensors that know if someone’s about to get decapitated and opens back up.”

Friend: “We just use the button.”

Later I found out that there is a sensor, but it’s at the bottom. If you stick your leg out it will open. But then you risk falling or kicking the person who you’re trying to let it, so just use the button. I still say it’s easier to stick your hand out. Anyone who has ever tried to find the “open door” button in the Newberger Hall elevator at PSU (which has two doors that don’t stop at all floors) knows that it’s not that simple!


Quick, your grandmother is trying to get through the elevator door. She’s going to get smashed in about 2.2 seconds but it will take her at least 2.2 more minutes to get her walker off the ground. CRAP! Wich is the right button?! Oops… Sorry grandma!

6. When you see someone you know in passing you say “goodbye” instead of “hello”.

I’ve actually always loved this. It’s really funny to me how the smallest cultural differences can be so interesting. To me, you can’t say “goodbye” unless you’ve said “hello” first. Not here. If you say “hello” most of the time you’re inviting a conversation. If you just say “goodbye” or “see you later” than you have greeted the person (don’t ever pass by someone you know without greeting them!) without having to stop for a conversation. The greeting customs are actually more complicated here too. When you enter a room, no matter where you are nor who you know or don’t,  you say hello and when you leave you say goodbye. This happens with strangers at doctor offices, schools, etc. I was in the copy room at the university one day and a secretary I knew had come in to get some copies. She left and about 30 seconds later came back in because she had forgotten to say goodbye to me.

What’s also fun is listening to the different variations of “see you later”. In Spanish “hasta luego” becomes: “Talogo,” “Staluego,” “T’logo” and sometimes just “tuooo”.

And what do we say at the end of every class? HASTA LUEEEEEEGOOO!

And what do we say at the end of every class? HASTA LUEEEEEEGOOO!

(If you have never seen Community with our dear Señor Chan the Spanish teacher, click on this link… crap, Hulu doesn’t work in Spain. Go to Hulu and type in “Community Senor Chan)

7. Time is not of the essence.

Americans are obsessed with timeliness and efficiency.  “Time is money,” “Don’t waste my time,” “While we keep a man waiting, he reflects on our shortcomings,” and as my grandmother always says: “If you’re not five minutes early, you’re five minutes late!”

The concept of timeliness here is much more relaxed. Sometimes this drives me nuts and sometimes I love it. If you’re off to a meeting and run into a friend who wants to talk, you stop to talk with them. If you’re running late, you don’t show this to the person you’re with because it’s rude. There are less clocks around and people just aren’t that concerned about it (compared to my culture). It’s not important because other things are. Time is used to be where you are when you are. Why are we so concerned about that minute hand on the clock?

Don't run so much, time doesn't run out.

Don’t run so much, time doesn’t run out.

8. You say “yes” whenever anyone asks you if you’ve eaten lunch. Even if you haven’t.

Food is very important to Spanish culture. Eating and staying healthy is important. Staying on a similar eating schedule is important. If you tell a Spaniard that you haven’t eaten (they ask because it’s important), they will drill you to find out when you are planning on eating and not stop until they are satisfied with the answer. I was in the library from about 11:00 and at 3:00  and when I was still sitting there (all the other students had left to go eat), the librarian asked me when I was going to eat. I told him that I needed to finish things and that I’d eat later… Mistake. He hounded me until I told him that I would leave in 20 minutes to eat and then I’d come back after a sufficient amount of time for eating. This has happened with classmates, professors and the landlady that I saw on the street, all with similar scoldings and reactions. Now, I just answer “yes” when they ask. This goes back to the siesta customs and I really like it. Although I’m used to people not being concerned about other people’s habits and it can be a bit annoying at times (only sometimes) but in the end I really appreciate it.

People don’t eat at their desks or in the libraries either. Sometimes I sneak in a sandwich so I don’t have to leave. I remember in my undergrad ordering a pizza to the library with a friend of mine so we could keep cramming. It’s a funny memory but that would NEVER happen here. Take a break when you eat. It’s healthier and it’s cleaner. There’s a time and a place for everything…

eating in library

9. There is a time and a place, and an order for everything. At least for everything that is considered worthy of such order.

As mentioned before, people don’t eat in class, at work, on the streets (mostly) or in the car. You eat at a table like a civilized person. Just as there is a time and place for eating, there is also a time and place for most everything. In the public libraries, you can only sit and read in a section if the book you’re reading is from that section. There could be 10 seats available in the art section but if the poetry section is full, you can’t sit there. Dining places and cafes are for eating and drinking, not studying, reading or working.  When you go to a tapas bar, you must first order your drink, and then your tapa. DO NOT MESS WITH THIS ORDER. It always seems too, that whenever you go to an office or government building to get anything done, you’ve always forgotten to do something that you were supposed to, get something signed that you were supposed to, staple the paper at a certain angle like you were supposed to, and if you didn’t do these things in the right order… you’re screwed! I’m not going to get more into the Spanish red tape but just know… THERE IS AN ORDER TO EVERYTHING.

It seems that there it is always the time and place for children. You will see children almost everywhere at all times of the day. It’s okay if your kids are not in their seats at a restaurant. It’s okay if your kids are running around the plaza when you’re sitting with friends. Most people look out for other children anyway and they’re not seen as a bother to most people. I like this.

There is an order to everything, except for when there’s not! For example, if you are old, you can cut in line, there is no order for you except for your own. If you  are waiting at a bar, the bartender will make up his own order and call whomever he wants to first to ask for the drink/food. And, one thing that I wish there was an order to (I’m sure there is but I just haven’t figured it out yet… and this is my third time living here) is they normal way in which people walk down the street. Seriously, there seems to be no rhyme or reason to it and head on collisions are just waiting to happen. You can’t just walk on the right side while others walk toward you on the left. It seems that any part of the sidewalk is fair game. Old ladies will be three wide chatting about their cats and then all of a sudden stop in dramatic pause about how fluffy didn’t come out of the closet for two days (it’s because you’re crazy, lady!). You can have eye contact with someone and suddenly they will change direction 30 degrees to come right towards you. You’ll be behind someone that is walking in a straight line, try to pass them, and then BAM, halt and to the right oblique. Walking down the sidewalk like a Spaniard. It’s a skill I still haven’t learned.

sidewalk wars

10. You are socially obligated to be socially aware.

I will spare my views on politics but I will say that one of the main reasons that we came to Spain was because of the part of the culture that is concerned about the whole rather than the individual in some very important areas. People like to be with each other. They like to gather. They like to stand together for causes. They like to know that everyone is taken care of and see it as a basic right.  In the three months that I’ve been in Salamanca, the school has closed twice due to strikes. One was a student strike and one was a national general strike. People know that the government is sucking at their job and they want to do something about it. Austerity measures aren’t working (I don’t think they ever would) and people are telling the government to change! People think it’s crazy that Americans don’t have universal healthcare. Patrick and I pay about 40 Euro a month (because we’re not eligible for ‘free’ healthcare) and get absolutely everything payed for when at the doctors. We recently received a bill from the U.S. for  $800.00 from when Pat broke his arm (and we had really good insurance in the States). The insurance would only pay part of it. That is unheard of here. Everyone has insurance and everyone is taken care of. There is no fear of going to the doctor because of the crazy co-pays and the inevitable “after bill” from what wasn’t covered.


Just as the Bull Fighter kills the bull, the Spanish government is killing the workers.

Just as the Bull Fighter kills the bull, the Spanish government is killing the workers.

Another example is a small one that says a lot. One of my Spanish friends told me a story of when her daughter was in school. She came home upset because her best friend was cheating off her paper. Her mom asked her “Is she your friend?” and when the daughter said yes, she replied: “If she is your friend then you help her. You let her copy. One day you will need something from her and she will help you. You help your friends.” This conversation would never happen in the U.S., at least no mother would admit to telling her daughter that. Where I’m from, you don’t let anyone else take credit for what you’ve done. Your work is your work (even though you’ve been helped along the way and don’t give credit to others for it) and you wouldn’t sacrifice that even for your friend.

One of the things that made moving here for good that much less scary was the knowledge that no matter what, my friends will be here for me. I have friends all over Spain and I know that they would do anything for me. I hope that they know I’d do anything for them too!

5 responses »

  1. I loved reading this Amanda , I saw so many of the same things when Jerry and I were in Italy. They have their priority s in the right place. I felt it so many places we went.

  2. Hi Amanda, Matthew gave me the link to your blog! Agree, agree, and agree. This is also my third year living in Spain and all of the above is SO true, good stuff!

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